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China won’t trade artefacts for human rights

China has rejected the peculiar offer [1] proposed by the partner of the late Yves Saint Lauren, to exchange artefacts (that are arguably looted) for human rights in Tibet.

Asia Times (Hong Kong) [2]

CHINA: Won’t Trade Art Objects For Rights in Tibet
Written by Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Feb 24 (IPS) – As nationalistic passions burn over the fate of looted Chinese artworks auctioned in Paris this week, Beijing is attempting to keep the focus on past humiliations by Western powers and away from delicate issues like human rights and China’s handling of Tibet.

The twisted tale of two animal heads, cast in bronze, that once adorned the Qing dynasty pleasure gardens in Beijing and disappeared, allegedly in pillaging by British and French armies in 1860, took yet another turn last week when their current owner suggested he would return them if Beijing agreed to free Tibet.

”I would be very happy to go myself and bring these two Chinese heads to put them in the Summer Palace in Beijing,” Pierre Berge, Yves Saint Laurent’s former business partner and companion, told the media in Paris.

”All they have to do is to declare they are going to apply human rights, give the Tibetans back their freedom and agree to accept the Dalai Lama on their territory,” Berge said.

State media reports have downplayed Berge’s statement, focusing instead on the efforts of patriotic Chinese overseas to block the sale and recover the stolen artworks. A group of 85 volunteer lawyers had submitted an application to a Paris court asking it to stop auctioneer Christie’s from putting the two sculptures under the hammer this week.

”Personally I have little hope that this single lawsuit would succeed in recovering the two animal heads,” Ren Xiaohong, a Chinese attorney representing the Association for the Protection of China Art in Europe, told the ‘Beijing Youth Daily’.

”But if this lawsuit manages to raise people’s awareness of the fate of stolen Chinese treasures and arrest the loss of more relics through theft and smuggling, it would be well worth the effort,” Ren said.

The Paris court has rejected the appeal and back home the planned auction has raised nationalistic hackles. On the weekend, campuses of several Beijing universities saw sporadic actions by students, campaigning against the auction. At the Capital Normal University students lined up to sign a gigantic banner declaring: ‘China has unquestionable ownership of the looted relics’.

Linking human rights, Tibet and the stolen relics has irked Chinese Internet public and elicited a series of angry responses.

”Since [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy came to power, France has made too many blunders,” said one Chinese netizen on the Internet portal douban.com. ”It is narcissistic to believe that one can use two animal heads as a trade off for human rights in Tibet,” wrote another who called himself ”dark star”.

The two bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit were acquired by St. Laurent and Berge as they amassed one of the world’s most impressive private art collections. After St. Laurent’s death last year, Berge announced he would sell the collection, estimated at up to 350 million US dollars and donate the proceeds to medical research to fight AIDS.

”Auctioning cultural objects looted in war time not only offends the Chinese people and undermines their cultural rights, but also violates relevant international conventions,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told the media last week.

The rat and the rabbit are among twelve zodiac animals designed by Jesuit missionary Father Benoit in the mid-18th century as part of a water clock embellishing the rococo-style palaces and fountains of Yuanming Yuan – the old summer residence of Chinese emperors. The 12 animals represent different hours of the day and night, at two-hour periods, each spouting water at its appointed time.

Official accounts hold that the fountain was destroyed during the 1860 assault on Beijing by Western allied forces in retaliation for the torture and death of British and French hostages. The palaces were first looted and then Lord Elgin, commander of the British troops, ordered the gardens and buildings to be set aflame.

But at least one study disagrees with the official version of events. Hope Danby, in her 1950 book ‘The Garden of Perfect Brightness’ claims the water clock that held the bronze animal heads was dismantled long before European forces arrived on the scene.

About 20 years before the burning of the old Summer palace, the wife of the reigning emperor, Daoguang, took such a strong dislike to the animals that she insisted on their removal. ”They have completely disappeared,” Hope Danby wrote, adding: ”It is surmised that they were melted down, their metal being remoulded into other ornaments”.

Only seven of the original 12 heads have resurfaced.

Nine years ago, three waterspouts, the heads of an ox, monkey and tiger, turned up for auction in Hong Kong. The Poly Group – a Chinese state-owned conglomerate dealing in weapons and real estate – bought the heads and returned them to the government. Two more heads, those of a pig and a horse, were bought by Stanley Ho, a casino mogul from Macao, who donated them to Beijing museums.

The appearance of the rat and rabbit heads at the Paris auction this time around has rekindled a wave of patriotic indignation, termed by some commentators here as the ”Yuanming Yuan syndrome”.

The burning of Yuanming Yuan, or Garden of Perfect Brightness, has bedeviled relations between China and the West for some 150 years. China sees its destruction as the beginning of a ”century of shame and humiliation” inflicted on the Chinese nation by foreign colonial powers.

Until a few months before the Olympic Games opened in Beijing last year, a sign at the entrance of Yuanming Yuan exhorted the public never to forget that chapter of history. ”Do not forget the national shame, rebuild the Chinese nation,” it said.

The founding father of communist China, Mao Zedong, is still deeply revered here for launching a revolution that put an end to foreign humiliations and made the Chinese people ”stand up”. In recent years, the increasing mercantilism of Chinese society has made party ideologues rely more and more on nationalistic rhetoric to rally people.

Beijing has also deployed its increasing political and economic clout to pressure other nations to hand over stolen Chinese treasures. But some see a potential downside to whipping up nationalist sentiments in China’s quest to recover its lost artworks.

”The price of scores of Chinese treasures auctioned abroad has escalated dramatically not the least because of China’s elevation of the quest as an issue of national priority,” said commentator Dan Shibing in the Monday China Business Journal.

”As China and Chinese entrepreneurs have been willing to pay ever higher sums to recover lost treasures, these artworks have become yet again an object of plunder,” Dan said.

The two heads that go under the hammer on Wednesday are estimated to be worth 10 million euros (12.7 million dollars) each. The Paris auction is opening at a time of nationalistic backlash in China against France because of its perceived support for the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

A Chinese delegation’s trip to Paris was cancelled after President Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama in December. And a high-level procurement team leaving this week for the European Union to boost China’s ties with the bloc has pointedly omitted France from its list of shopping destinations.